The Suit: Are you all in?
by Jason Harrison. Every company has a big client that gives it its big break. A client who, against conventional wisdom, trusts you from a host of brilliant competitors to take their beloved brand to new heights together. Ours came in the first week of October of 2011. One week later, the handover hard drive from the incumbent agency, with five years of history on it, got stolen from my drawer*.
To say the new client was mad when he found out is an understatement of note. He sent me an absolute bomber of a mail, telling me that I had personally lost five years of his brand’s history in South Africa. He ended the note saying that, if I couldn’t even keep a hard drive safe, how on earth would he be able to trust me with his brand every day?
I was gutted. How on earth was I going to sort this out? So, I did the only thing I could think of. I invited him to meet me for a coffee the next day, where I told him I would make it all right. But making it all right didn’t involve getting the hard drive back — by now it was long gone — it involved something far harder.
A simple promise
When I arrived at the coffee shop, I could see that he was still madly angry. I calmly sat down and said to him, “There is nothing I can ever SAY that will make this better; there is only what I can DO from now on that will show you how committed I am to your business. I am promising you now that I will give you everything I have, every single day”.
To his eternal credit, he lifted his cup, took a sip and said, “And I promise you the same”.
I worked with that client every single day for five years and they were some of the most-rewarding of my career. His job was to stick to global guidelines but he defended great local work with his life. He was hectic in meetings but he was the first to arrive with champagne for our birthday. He pushed us to the limit to deliver excellence but then organised team dinners, after campaigns were done, to say thank you. He stuck to his promise and we remain great friends to this day.
Behaviour is truth
Over those five years, I learnt a very simple lesson in building enduring relationships with clients: Behaviour is truth.
- Either you will love them, or you won’t.
- Either you will answer that call at 11pm, or you won’t.
- Either you will work your whole weekend to help them, or you won’t.
- Either you will stay out for that tequila when you really shouldn’t, or you won’t.
- Either you will tell them the truth because you care, or you won’t.
And either they will do all of that for you, or they won’t.
I have always said that great agencies don’t make great work. Great clients make great work with great agencies — and great suits realise that you don’t make great work by having a transactional and arm’s-length relationship with your client.
You have to go all in.
- All in means less email and more “I’ll pop in rather”.
- All in means less paperwork and more “let’s have a chat over a drink”.
- All in means less meetings and more “let’s brainstorm in the canteen together”.
Going all in has an unexpected benefit: you become happier, you feel more fulfilled, you learn more and you grow more. Of course, it has to be reciprocal and respectful but most clients I’ve worked with are equally as keen to go all in with their suit partner to make something far greater together, too.
It reminds me of a quote I recently saw: “Be all in, or get all out. There is no halfway.”
*We eventually tracked that hard drive down to a pawn store. It had been stolen by a renegade IT contractor who had the good sense (post-theft) to wipe the hard drive before flogging it for R150. I bought that worthless piece of hardware out of pride. Best R150 I ever spent.
*Updated at 3.22pm on 28 May 2019.
Jason Harrison started as a 23-year-old account executive at Ogilvy & Mather before moving to London five years later to run three agency teams in three different European countries. He joined his old mates again in 2011 as one of the founding partners of the M&C Saatchi Group at 33. He believes that creating beautifully simple solutions for an increasingly complex world will, in fact, save the world. His MarkLives column, “The Suit” is about inspiring and helping up-and-coming suits to be better at their craft. He is no longer on Twitter.